A Brief History of Branding and Today’s Top Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) Brands

How the history and etymology of branding influenced brands, old and new, to develop their branding strategies and dominate the marketing industry

Although branding has grown and evolved over the past thousand years, the premise remains the same. When companies formulate their brands, their main desire is rooted in the need for consumers to recognize them as more valuable than competitors. A combination of vocabulary, symbols, logos, color palettes, emotions, and themes intertwine to create the most memorable brands in history.

What Goes into a Brand

A brand is a medley of every perception and feeling that customers, investors, and employees associate with a company. Branding is how a company molds, bit by bit, every component of its brand into something that consistently benefits its bottom line and the consumers that affect it.

Distinct branding lets businesses quickly communicate helpful product information to consumers. When done right, companies can use their brand to convey product and company information verbally and visually in one fell swoop.

The Etymology of Brand and Branding

Originally the word “brandr” was used in Ancient Norse, meaning “to burn,” referring to burning wood or using a torch. When the term made its way to the English language, it meant to mark something with a hot iron. When the 17th century came around, the word came closer to its modern-day meaning, “a mark of ownership by branding.” Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, people began applying the term to businesses developing competitive marketing strategies. By the 21st century, brand and branding meant something entirely different than their original connotations.

The Earliest History of Branding

Earliest History of branding

Photo Credit: from Spokesman.com

While the etymology of branding hailed from ancient Norse, the act of branding dates back to the Stone Age when people marked their cattle with paint. Throughout prehistory, artists and ceramicists used a form of branding to mark their creations for easy identification of ownership. These acts of marking products to denote ownership were technically the first use of product logos.

In ancient times, vendors sold spices, alcohol, and textiles on a large scale. To communicate with illiterate people or those who spoke different languages, merchants displayed distinctive icons or images outside their stores to differentiate themselves from other merchants. Although this tradition was popular in ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt, people also practiced it during the Zhou Dynasty in China.

After the 13th century, the medieval trading industry began to blossom. Trading between the Eastern and Western worlds was becoming consistent, birthing large craft guilds. These guilds eventually required merchants to brand their goods with distinctive symbols or logos to streamline the trading process.

The invention of block printing during the Sung Dynasty in China and then the invention of the Gutenberg Printing Press in 1440 in Germany opened even more doors for trading and commerce. Developments in branding, from printed wrappers to advertising posters, became popularized. What is known as branding today quickly became vital to selling goods and services in ancient times.

Industrialization of Branding

Photo Credit: from Checkingmyid.com

Branding in the 18th Century

Mass production of goods and a need for more expansive marketing tactics arrived alongside the first industrial revolution. Alternative advertising methods like banners, placards, and miscellaneous branded items thus began to surface during the 18th century.

As the value of owning a brand became more prominent, companies began to market their products by developing identifiable branding. Slogans, mascots, and jingles were born from the need for companies to attach an identity to their brand to stand out from their competitors.

With more choices available for customers, logos became a way for companies to mark the quality of their products compared to others. Businesses also began developing brand identities and guidelines to ensure they positioned their products to generate the most sales.

Branding in the 19th Century

As years passed, industrialization gave way to broader mass production than before. Inventions like the Wright Brothers’ airplane and the first automobile defined the era and produced an atmosphere of creativity and innovation. The 19th century became a breeding ground for industry leaders in the branding world, like Coca-Cola.

Governments realized there was a need for regulation among companies to continue in a growth pattern. Registered trademarks, patents, and copyright laws began surfacing, and in 1881, the U.S. Congress passed the first Trademark Act.

Oxford Languages defines a trademark as “a symbol, word, or words legally registered or established by use as representing a company or product.”

Branding intellectual property rose to prominence as companies realized the importance of protecting their established brands from rivals. Arguably, trademark laws popularized branding in the marketing sphere even further.

Branding in the 20th Century

Branding in the 20th Century

As new media, like radio and television, came about and demand increased, branding evolved to fit the new needs of the 20th century. In an endless cycle, the consumer economy influenced branding and advertising in the marketing world and vice versa.

In the 1920s, radio was the most popular form of advertisement forcing brands to distinguish an audible brand image that left an impression on listeners. In a way, this advertising medium helped brands formulate brand image beyond the visual sphere.

Another world-altering invention, the television, changed how companies looked at marketing and branding. Companies could fit more information into a commercial than radio or print ads. Visually pleasing and captivating stories became the primary method to sell products. Television brought brands into consumers’ homes, building more personality and trust.

In addition to television, brands could now place advertisements on billboards, subway signs, and product packaging. By the 1950s, to fit the demand of these new marketing platforms, corporations like General Foods, Procter and Gamble, and Unilever conceptualized brand management as a branch of their marketing departments. At this point, branding became more about attaching a character to a company than putting its logo on everything.

One of the most iconic brands of all time was born in this era. McDonald’s, the number one fast-food restaurant in the world, opened its doors in Illinois in 1954. Its branding evolved alongside the trends and expectations of branding. McDonald’s grew beyond its rivals by keeping up with the new strategies throughout the decades.

The more companies arrived on the scene, the more critical it became for brands to create cohesive identities to reflect their products. Targeting specific audiences instead of marketing to everyone became a trend that stuck through the following decades. Brands began formulating their products, from marketing strategy to packaging colors, to fit the target audience’s preferences. Branding became less robotic and more about building consumer relationships.

The Modern Era of Branding

Today branding is less about marking territory and more about selling a concept or idea and building an emotional connection with the target consumer. Companies sell products or services, but brands evoke feelings and build experiences. The end goal is for consumers to be able to identify a brand and associate it with its products.

Simply mentioning Starbucks will bring its signature green and white logo to mind. “Our mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time,” says Starbucks’ website. There is no question that Starbucks’ branding conjures distant memories from consumers’ past. The company’s $32.25 billion in total revenue since 1971 proves Starbucks’ brand strategy over the years is advantageous.

Similarly to Starbucks, Apple prioritizes selling emotion. When Apple releases a new product, it attaches consumers’ identity to it, ensuring they will purchase it. During the Super Bowl in 1984, Apple aired its most impactful television commercials. The commercial introduces the Macintosh computer to viewers nationwide by showing the disruption of a dystopian future inspired by George Orwell’s novel “1984.” Decades later, Forbes considers Apple the world’s most valuable brand. The brand’s logo, consistency, emotional marketing, and consumer experience continue to work together to formulate the most effective brand strategy of all time.

Today’s Branding Trendsetters

A few brands started as trendsetters, like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Apple, and remained iconic in marketing. Staying relevant for decades is no small feat. Branding is what creates a lasting impression that stands the test of time. Many direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands have occult status and are on their way to becoming industry leaders like those before them.

Fear of God

Fear of God is an independent e-commerce brand specializing in American luxury fashion. High-end streetwear with oversized silhouettes, neutral color palettes, high-grade materials, and fine craftsmanship steal the spotlight, and Fear of God’s branding reflects it. When Jerry Lorenzo founded Fear of God in 2013, he based his branding strategy on creative storytelling, brand consistency, and celebrity endorsements. With mystique and intrigue as its guide, Fear of God brings forth feelings of exclusivity and popularity to draw in younger demographics and keep them wanting more. Lorenzo has built an empire around his brand with a fanbase of 1.75 million and a net worth of over $12 million.


Photo Credit: from Glamour.com

In 2014, Emily Weiss founded Glossier, now one of the world’s most successful DTC beauty brands. Its $1.2 billion value is enough social proof that Glossier is doing branding right. Glossier’s powerful branding starts with consistent and pleasing product packaging. Polished fonts, simple graphic design elements, and the millennial pink color palette deliver what the brand’s fans desire: consistency and aesthetics. Glossier capitalizes on Instagram-able product packaging and trendy content to remain relevant to its target audience of millennial women.


Fishwife, a Los Angeles-based tinned fish DTC company, entered the market with virtually no competition, a sustainable mission, and impeccably distinct branding. In 2020, founder Becca Millstein saw a gap in the tinned fish market. She wanted to bring deliciousness, humor, and artfulness to the table. Artist Danny Miller helps to bring the visual branding to life with bright colors and quirky illustrations. The brand’s mission of upholding sustainability and quality adds an element of trustworthiness. Fishwife has generated over 60,000 followers on Instagram and over $2.7 billion in sales since its debut and is on track to become another iconic brand.


Non-toxic kitchenware, bakeware, kitchen accessories, and sleek design brought Caraway to fame and over $70.3 million in funding. In 2019, Jordan Nathan conceptualized the DTC cookware company to eliminate toxic PTFE and Teflon from his own kitchen. With the help of brand managers and a detail-oriented creative team, Caraway established a brand voice with health and design in mind. Consumers easily recognize the brand across product packaging, website pages, and social media posts.

Chamberlain Coffee

YouTubers are known for expanding their careers into the DTC sphere, but Emma Chamberlain’s coffee brand, Chamberlain Coffee, takes celebrity retail to the next level. Chamberlain’s audience of 12 million subscribers on YouTube kickstarted the brand upon its launch in 2020, but the branding strategy kept the momentum going. Chamberlain Coffee offers a variety of roasted coffees, teas, and drink accessories with an option to subscribe and receive products monthly. The celebrity endorsements, a primary color palette, quaint animal illustrations, and enjoyable packaging keep consumers loyal to shopping on the site.

Call in a Branding Agency

POLA Marketing’s talented team is well-versed in the importance of branding and marketing methods. Our team mindfully and artistically creates branding and devises thought-provoking marketing strategies for businesses. For more information, contact us at (polamarketing.com/contact/).

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